Monthly Archives: April 2014

When is Old Age?

In 1555* Charles V abdicated. He was the greatest European ruler of his day, Emperor of Germany, Duke of Burgundy, King of Aragon (including chunks of southern Italy and Sicily) and Castile (including new conquests in the Americas), and various territories along the Danube and in North Africa.

He was born in 1500 – and when I taught European history to first year students, I used to say that he retired at 55 because at that age he could access his superannuation. As I got closer to the same milestone, I think my lecture became increasingly heartfelt, though sadly only the mature aged students ever really got the joke.

Not many rulers willingly abdicate. It usually takes a revolution of some sort, or a particularly sexy American divorcée, before they can be dragged off kicking and screaming. It was a particularly unusual act in the early modern era, when the sacral nature of a crowned king, ordained by God, was taken very seriously – and Charles was a serious and religious man.

Charles V by Titian (1548)

Charles V looks considerably older than 48 in this portrait by Titian from 1548

But he was also an exhausted man, and by the standards of his day already an old man. Continue reading

Fluidity and the Pitch Drop Experiment

Forget the unforgettable drop. The Pitch Drop that I wrote about some time ago has finally dropped! http://www.smh.com.au/national/pitch-err-this-worlds-longestrunning-experiment-finally-drops-20140423-373s6.html

Historians are Past Caring

It’s probably not the most important scientific research project to come out of Queensland, but it may well be the most famous.  In 2005 the University of Queensland Physics Department’s ‘pitch drop experiment’ won the Ig Nobel Prize.  According to the 2002 Guinness Book of Records, it is the oldest continuously running scientific experiment in the world.  It has its own YouTube site .

What is the difference between a solid and a liquid?  For most materials, the answer is simple – water is a liquid, ice is a solid – but for some materials, the answer is less straightforward.  Which category does glass fit into, for instance?  It is often thought that it flows very slowly, so that gravity gradually distorts the shape of stained glass windows so that they are discernibly thicker at the bottom.  This seems to be disputed: hand-blown medieval glass panels are distorted, but it…

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An Unforgettable Drop

Scandals don’t travel very well geographically. Some scandals take on a global dimension, and are instantly recognizable as such wherever you live – Monica Lewinsky’s dress definitely, a duck house built at taxpayers’ expense maybe, but I doubt if anyone elsewhere will really understand the significance of a New South Wales Premier thanking a lobbyist for giving him an expensive bottle of red wine.

Last week the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell denied to the Independent Commission on Corruption that he was given a bottle of 1959 Grange 3 years ago. He said he didn’t remember receiving it and he didn’t put it on his gift register, but when confronted with his own thank you note, he resigned.

It’s not the most riveting of scandals, though the ICAC inquiry is currently revealing a lot about politics in New South Wales that reminds me of the remark attributed (or misattributed) to Otto von Bismarck that you don’t want to see how either laws or sausages are made, if you want a good night’s sleep. Continue reading

The Curse of the Ring

Cinderella's Wedding

Cinderella’s Wedding, Disney and Windsor versions

Warning: this is not my standard history post, but since the Royals are here, and since I’ve spent too long in doctors’ waiting rooms this week reading rubbish, and since this celebrates my 200th post since I began blogging, I’m indulging in nonsense instead.

Last year ABC Classic FM ran a competition, asking listeners to suggest a contemporary topic that could be turned into a Wagner opera.  I thought they wanted 500 words. It was only after I’d written this that I re-checked, and they wanted 50 words. So I had a parody with nowhere to go. Until now.

The Curse of the Ring

Act I: A young Nordic prince, Frederik (tenor), travels to a Great Southern Land to compete with sailors from around the world in the Games of the Rings. He sings of his quest to claim the Gold and take it back with him to Denmark. Continue reading

A Mystery Object in Moreton Bay

Last week, someone contacted me by email to ask for help to find out more about this object:

seal found under Hornibrook highway

seal found under Hornibrook Highway

He thought it might have some historical significance. I’ve no idea, but I wonder whether the hive mind of the Internet may be able to help identify it. It seems to be a seal stamp designed to impress sealing wax on the back of an envelope. But how old is it? Continue reading

What’s for breakfast?

I’m currently reading the journal of Thomas Otho Travers. He worked for the East India Company in the early 19th century, at one time as private secretary to Sir Stamford Raffles when he was in Java. Raffles is best remembered because he later founded Singapore. The journal is rather frustrating, to be honest, because Tom seems to have written it up only once a month, just giving a summary of any important events during that time. It lacks the immediacy of a daily journal.

The reasons why we keep a diary are very different from the reasons later historians may want to read it. A diary may be a memoir or an aide memoire, a chance to sound off about the boss, or a spiritual solace.

What it never tells you, in my experience, is what the writer had for breakfast. Why should it? Travers’ diary was where he noted down significant or unusual events he needed to remember, or wanted to think through. He had no need to jot down details about his own daily life.

Old Bencoolen 1799

Joseph Constantine Stadler, Fort Marlborough from Old Bencoolen, Sumatra (1799)

And yet I would love to know more about what East India Company servants, and other British traders in the Far East, were having for breakfast in the early 19th century. Continue reading